“The Lion looked at Alice wearily. ‘Are you animal—vegetable—or mineral?’ he said, yawning at every other word. ‘It’s a fabulous monster!’ the Unicorn cried out, before Alice could reply.”                               —Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Oops!…You think I’m in love,
That I’m sent from above…
I’m not that innocent!

—Britney Spears, Oops! I Did It Again, 2000

Lolita (low-lee’-tah) noun. A precociously seductive girl, barely in her teens.

A modern dictionary defines a girl as a female child and a child as a minor and a minor as anybody under the age of eighteen. As of 2004, the U.S. age of sexual consent for a female—the age assigned by legislators that defines the legal time at which a girl can consent voluntarily to sexual activity with another person—is between sixteen and eighteen years and varies from state to state. In some countries, such as Mexico and Paraguay, it is as low as twelve, and in the U.S. in 1885, before age of consent campaigns came along to criminalize statutory rape as more and more young women entered urban workplaces—putting them on their own on the streets of the big industrial cities, away from the shelter and protection of their families[1]—it was as low as ten. Reformers at that time believed, like Travis Bickel, that seduction by older men was to be blamed for the moral ruin of  young women and girls, and they challenged the stereotype of the “fallen woman” as depraved and dangerous by putting her forth instead as a victim of male lust and exploitation.[2]

Carlie Brucie, whose kidnapping from the car wash was caught on videotape in 2002, was only eleven years old, but her mother described her as looking older than that. At five feet tall and 120 pounds, “[s]he doesn’t look like an 11-year-old… She’s a little built.” As if her budding sexuality put her at even more risk than if she’d been a board-chested straight-waisted gangly-limbed Tom-boy with braces and freckles and short-cropped hair. But Carlie Brucie wasn’t alone in her precocious sexual development, as more girls are experiencing puberty earlier than ever, showing signs of maturity as early as seven or eight and getting their first menstrual periods at ten. A report by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society (LWPES), a nationwide network of physicians headquartered in Stanford, California, suggests that it is normal for girls as young as six and seven start developing breasts. [3]  Nobody knows for sure just exactly why this is so, but theories abound, ranging from over-exposure to insecticides—said to cause estrogenic activity that triggers puberty in young girls—to obesity to hormone-laced chicken and antibiotic-contaminated milk. Whatever the cause, the result is that we find ourselves in a culture with sexualized little girls who are encouraged to tempt but still may not be touched.

Says Helen Egger, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Duke University’s department of psychiatry,  “Even though these girls’ bodies are changing, they are still very much young children and emotionally are probably not ready to talk about some of the things you might talk to, say, an 11-year-old about.” She advises parents to “[s]tart by talking about the physical changes your daughter is going through, without going into details about having sexual relations. Most 8-year-olds haven’t even considered dating, let alone having sex.”[4]

And yet there they are, swarms of nymphets trolling the malls of America in their short skirts and tight pants and bare tummies, nails polished, lips glossed, hair gelled, bottoms all a-wiggle, getting jiggy to the hip hop beat. Nothing for the wolf to do except stand by, panting, until he can’t stand it anymore or opportunity knocks and he sees his chance.

[1] See Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, (New York: Random House, Inc., 2003), in which America’s first serial killer, Henry H. Holmes, opens a torture palace disguised as a hotel in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair. The building included such amenities as airtight seals on rooms in which gas jets were attached to no appliances, greased wooden chutes, a dissection table, and a specially designed, body-sized oven in the basement capable of reaching a bone-smoldering 3,000 degrees. Holmes preyed specifically on the young women who had come to Chicago unescorted, looking for work at the fair. ”Holmes adored Chicago,” Larson explains, ”adored in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed, save perhaps a blade-thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung, anthracite and putrefaction.”

[2] Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[3] Figures are based on a study of 17,000 girls between the ages of 3 and 12 conducted by the Pediatric Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of 1,500 pediatricians nationwide and published in the April 1997 issue of “Pediatrics.”

[4] Jennifer Haupt, “More Girls Experience Early Puberty,” March 31, 2000.